What I Read, October 2020

Busy month. I kept to a schedule, writing at least a few paragraphs most days, and reading something Holocaust-related every morning. (Useful, fascinating, bit wearing.) I wrote a chapter of this book manuscript or whatever it’s going to be. I rejoiced in cooler weather which turned my runs from grim duty to joyful endorphin-fests. I counted the Biden signs in the neighbourhood and felt incautiously optimistic (not that he would win Arkansas, as if, but that he would win overall, and bigly). I studied for my US citizenship test and drove to Memphis to take it. And on the weekends I treated myself to Our Mutual Friend, which I didn’t quite finish, but will soon. (It’s good!) Here are my thoughts on the rest of my reading:

Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle (1957) Trans. Roy Edwards (1960)

Minco, born Sara Menco, was a twenty-year-old Jewish newspaper journalist when the Germans conquered her native Holland. Shortly thereafter she was fired by the paper’s pro-German leadership. That was the first of many losses. When the rest of her family was rounded up she escaped—slipping out the back door, diving through a gap in the hedge, and running breathlessly in search of safety—and spent the rest of the war in hiding in a series of safe houses.

She resumed writing after the war, achieving success with this, her first book, in 1957. The old Penguin edition I read describes it as a novel, but its events track her own experiences closely. I prefer Minco’s more accurate subtitle: the book is indeed a little chronicle, modest in size, if not in scope, its mode of telling disjointed, eliding important connective tissue. Not a narrative, then, but rather a text struggling how to best represent time. Bitter Herbs is made up of discrete (and discreet) units that offer flashes of Minco’s experience before and during the Nazi occupation.

Readers are likely to calibrate the bits of the story to the historical timeline—”it must be 1944 by now; the Allies have arrived”—but Minco challenges that practice, preferring instead to perform, and thus make us in some small way feel, the dislocation of life on the run. Minco survived, or we would not have her book, but her story doesn’t end happily. The final chapter describes her paternal uncle, the only other person in her family to have survived (in his case thanks to his marriage to a non-Jew). Every day the uncle waits at the tram stop near his house, fruitlessly searching out familiar faces. No one else ever comes back.

Minco’s chapters are little essays. In the one that gives the book its title, as she reflects on her split-section decision to run when the SS arrived to take her and her parents away, Minco describes how, briefly reunited with her brother and sister-in-law in a safe house, the three take turns bleaching their hair, causing their landlady to become suspicious and kick them out. She compares the door of the no-longer safe house she passes through into an uncertain future to the one she fled through, which reminds her, in turn, of the custom at the end of the Passover Seder to open the door for the prophet Elijah. Instead of dwelling on this messianic moment—Elijah never comes, at least not yet—Minco remembers the last of the Four Questions, which, as the youngest in the family, she would always be the one to ask: Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs? Her memory concludes:

Then my father would chant the story of the exodus from Egypt, and we ate of the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, in order that we should taste again of that exodus—from year to year, for ever and ever.

Am I right to hear a note of disdain here? As if the ritual were an impotent reveling in pain? (That repetition of “year to year,” “for ever and ever”—the endlessness seems as bitter as the herb.) Yet Minco can’t help but remember the moment, which could also be read as an invocation of an unbreakable tradition. But any idea of permanence is belied by both the form and content of her book. Minco is keen, at the end of the book, to take the tram and not look back—to be different from her uncle.

Roy Edwards’s translation seems a bit dusty; I gather a new version is forthcoming in the UK. The old edition was, however, graced by beautiful, jagged drawings by Herman Dijkstra. I wonder if those were present in the original Dutch, or whether they were added by Penguin. Minco celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year; it would be nice if an English-language publisher would follow Germany’s Arco Verlag in releasing a lovely centenary edition of this underappreciated writer.

Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (2020)

I was talking with a friend on Twitter the other day about autofiction: I enjoy it, but I find it doesn’t stay with me, maybe because I’m not trained to read it the way I am, say, realism. And maybe the problem is with Nunez: I remember delighting in her previous book, The Friend, and then, months later, having no memory of it, and even a few weeks later I’m hazy about What Are You Going Through? Maybe I read her too quickly; maybe her style is too lucid. (Is that a thing?) Maybe I should read the book again; maybe she’s one of those writers who only blossom when re-read. I do know, though, that I much preferred Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, which similarly considers the emotional and physical caretaking of a dying friend. That I read in January and still think about all the time. Maybe because Garner’s book is filled with rage, and rage scares me. Nunez, though pointed—her tone reminds me of a perfectly plucked eyebrow—is calmer, less likely to push my buttons.

Hilary Leichter, Temporary (2020)

The first time I saw Hilary Leichter I was terrified of her. I was just beginning a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College. (It sounds much fancier than it was: people would often politely ask, “Where are you visiting from?” not knowing that this is academic speak for “We have hired you on a full-time basis but only temporarily; do not expect to stick around.”) The night before the semester started my wife and I and some similarly temporarily employed friends attended a student production of David Mamet’s Oleanna, a two-hander about a young woman who, under the auspices/prodding of an ominously named “Group,” accuses a professor of harassment. I have not seen or read this play since; I strongly suspect it now reads as regressive and dismissive of accusers, but at the time it seemed evenhanded and smart. Anyway, as a newly-minted instructor I was terrified by the play’s suggestion that students could turn on one. And mostly I was in awe at the actor who played the student, who transformed, even physically, becoming taller, more present, from the first to the second act. (I mean, the transformation is in the script, but the actor seemed to become someone wholly other, through her carriage, posture, intonations, etc.)

When I stepped into the classroom the next week I didn’t even recognize that actor in Hilary Leichter, pleasant student ready to tackle Virginia Woolf. And when I did I had a moment of alarm—what would this student do to me? Nothing, it turned out, but good, by ably and generously contributing to the life of the seminar. Eventually she graduated and went on her way, and I did something similar, being very lucky to get my current job. I believe that all teachers really want is for their students to thrive, in whatever way best suits them. Imagine then my pleasure when I learned about Hilary’s first novel. And my joy and pride—you’d think I’d written the damn thing myself—when it got a rave New York Times review (it has since also appeared on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best of the Year list). I was excited to be able to convince the other members of the talent committee to invite Hilary to the Six Bridges Literary Festival; alas, our reunion was spoiled by COVID, but we finally got to reconnect when the festival went virtual last month.

In preparation for her appearance, which I agreed to moderate, I sat down to finally read Temporary. I was nervous. What if I didn’t like it? But my fear quickly vanished. The book is smart and engaging: just like Hilary herself. Temporary concerns a young woman who works a series of unusual temp jobs. In the world of the novel, though, which is both ours and not quite, such precarity is not a shitty fact of how we’ve decided to organize society but an identity position. Some people, like the narrator, are temps; they long for the permanence that Leichter calls “the steadiness.”

In reimagining economic reality as existential situation, Leichter critiques the cruel optimism of so-called late capitalism. The narrator’s jobs are like extravagant, explosive versions of what you’d find in Richard Scarry: she directs traffic, delivers mail, fills in on a pirate ship while someone is on leave, opens doors, robs banks, and even assassinates people to order. Throughout, Leichter literalizes the anodyne language of business management, giving it new life—“completely underwater” means something different when you work on a pirate ship. (The narrator concludes, perhaps offering Leichter’s own credo: “You can turn a phrase only so many times before it turns into something else.”)

Temporary could at first seem, like its title, slight. The publisher seems to be marketing it as charming, even zany (bright yellow cover featuring a delicate masked figure). And no question, the novel is fun and often laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly like the subplots involving the narrator’s 18 boyfriends, differentiated only by Homeric epithets: pacifist boyfriend, handy boyfriend, earnest boyfriend. When the narrator leaves the city for her pirate gig, the boyfriends move into her apartment, fixing it up for her and, as she learns on regular phone calls home, getting along famously: “‘We stayed up all night working!’ my caffeinated boyfriend chirps.”

But Temporary is serious business: its fantasy lets us imagine a world beyond precarity. “No one is outwardly harmed, but there’s harm everywhere”—this sentence encapsulates both capitalism’s false cheer and the novel’s stealth design. Will our protagonist find the steadiness she desires? Or will she tap into the power of temporariness, which has, after all, been handed down to her as a matrilineal inheritance, like the Jewishness that suffuses the novel without ever being named. Like Jewishness, at least in its exilic form, temporariness longs to be accepted by the fortunate steady, but, because such acceptance would undo its very identity, also rejects it. Temporary is a novel of resistance, not assimilation; as such, it’s a novel we need. Best of all, I can say I knew the author before she made it big, back when I was temporary too.

GennaRose Nethercott, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (2019) Illus. Bobby DiTrant

Cootie catchers are those folded paper fortune tellers you made as a kid to dare your friend to do something gross or to find out who you would marry. Nethercott’s book comes in a sleeve about the size of an LP filled with sheets you fold yourself and use to tell the story. In some version of late 19th early 20th century America, filled with trains and burlesque dancers, at an ominous plantation-like cranberry farm, terrible things are happening: every month a young woman goes missing, lost to the bog. Will Lianna escape? Where to and to what purpose? Will she bring justice to her sacrificed comrades? Depending on the vagaries of chance—i.e. how you play with the cootie catchers—any number of outcomes are possible.

I wouldn’t have read this had it not been for that lit fest panel I mentioned above (Nethercott appeared with Leichter). Which would have been a shame. I confess, though, that I found Lianna a little too cute—at least I did until I heard Nethercott’s (and Leichter’s) impassioned rejection of “whimsey” as a response women writers face more often than men; that dismissal, moreover, neglects the power of the fanciful to help us imagine a world that might be different than our own. As serious as a children’s game, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog is indeed a story of forced labour, violence against women, and the possibility of escaping those terrible material realities.

Charles Cumming, A Colder War (2014)

The follow-up to A Foreign Country. I enjoyed the glimpses of Istanbul. The love interest is a little too hetero-guy wet-dream-y, though.

Charles Cumming, A Divided Spy (2016)

The Thomas Kell trilogy comes to a satisfying conclusion. The last scene is especially good; unusual in spy fiction. I’ll read more of Cumming.

Barbara Demick, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (1996, revised 2012)

As I mentioned last month, Demick likes to use the experiences of a few individuals to illustrate larger political-historical situations. Here she offers a single street in Sarajevo as a microcosm for the siege of 1992—95. The six blocks of Logavina Street offer, for Demick, the best of the place, a city where, as the jacket copy puts it, “Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, lived easily together, unified by their common identity as Sarajevans.” I know Demick didn’t write that descriptions, but it speaks the strengths and weaknesses of her approach: light on history, good with character. The families Demick lives among experience the strains of life lived under threat of mortar and sniper: often cold, mostly hungry, always at risk.

Unfortunately, the capable storytelling isn’t matched by comparable analytic sophistication (her most recent book is better). I winced when Demick misread Primo Levi, dubiously compared Sarajevans under siege to inmates of a subcamp of Auschwitz. But in an introduction written for this second edition, Demick recognizes the book’s flaws, regretting its naivete. I don’t think she’s renounced her belief in the beauty of a multiethnic, cosmopolitan polity, but she no longer thinks this ideal is coterminous with freedom and democracy. The whole book is, no surprise, redolent of the 1990s, a time that now seems impossibly quaint and infuriatingly smug. But Demick is right to have left the text as it was written (even as she has added a welcome post-script updating readers on her subjects). And I still learned a lot. Logavina Street allowed me, who didn’t pay much attention to the events as they occurred—they were part of life’s grim background noise, inexplicable other than through lazy, and totally bogus, nostrums about age-old ethnic hatreds—to start remedying past ignorance.

Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1963)

Reader extraordinaire and Backlisted podcaster Andy Miller named Segal’s novel My First American as his best read of October. Hearing this, I resolved to take down my copy of this, her first novel, which, like Minco’s Bitter Herbs, could certainly be called a memoir, as it follows her own experiences closely.

Segal (née Groszmann) left Vienna in 1938 on one of the Kindertransports. In England she was billeted with various families who, although well-meaning, simply couldn’t understand her, mistaking her reserve for stubbornness instead of trauma. Segal’s vividly portrays her family in pre-Anschluss times (especially her charming uncle, Paul, part wastrel, part mensch), the new “families” she is plunked among, and herself, always tracking her own reactions. She has an eye for psychological complication—in the hours before her desperate parents send their only child off alone to a foreign country, for example, they buy her a sausage, which the girl has said she wants, but only because she sees they want to get her something special to prove their love; on the journey to England and in the first weeks there, spent in a freezing holiday camp hastily made over as refugee center, the sausage, which she cannot bring herself to eat and is in fact disgusted by but which she also cannot bear to throw away, begins to rot, its smell an unshakable stain symbolizing terrible misunderstanding and conflicted emotions.

Through force of will the child helps her parents get British visas (she writes begging letters to the authorities, trading on her position as lost and vulnerable child), though the visas only allow them to work in domestic service, so the family remains separated except for occasional visits. Segal’s mother takes to the work, even though in Vienna she had had servants herself; she is an unstoppable force. Her father does not, he is helpless, his training as an accountant hasn’t prepared him for his new role as a gardener. His health declines; Segal’s mother spends her scarce private time and energy to attending to him; Segal, now a teenager, condemns him as a burden. All very fraught. Eventually she moves to London, attends a women’s college, and, after the war, accompanies her mother to the Dominican Republic, where her uncle was hopelessly attempting to become a farmer (at the Evian conference on the Jewish crisis in 1938, the DR was the only country willing to take Jewish refugees). In 1951, her American visa finally comes through, and the last part of the book tells the story of her finding her feet in New York.

Other People’s Houses is like a mashup of Kluger’s Still Alive, Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In other words, extremely my shit. In tone it is most similar to Gornick—unsparing, but less harsh than Kluger and less sweet than Kerr. It’s terrific. I will say, I did find it a bit long, especially in its second half (the childhood parts of autobiographical books are always the best). In fact, I had the same feeling finishing this as I did when I first read Still Alive. I liked it, I knew it was good, but I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It took me several readings of Kluger’s memoir to really get a handle on its genius, and I suspect the same will be true for Segal’s. (No surprise, by the way, that Segal wrote the introduction to Still Alive.) I plan to teach Other People’s Houses; that’s when I’ll really get a handle on it.

Mark Roseman, Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany (2019)

As I say in my precis, this is the most consequential book I’ve read this year. A work of history both deep and accessible with important implications for how we think about resistance.

Liz Moore, Long Bright River (2020)

Moore’s title is lifted from Tennyson and works both literally—this is a great novel of Philadelphia; the Delaware recurs frequently—and metaphorically—the subject is the release and suffering users of races and classes find in the river of opioids deluging the country. Like Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, which I keep singing the praises of, Moore’s novel upends the conventions of the procedural. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a cop; her sister is an addict. Every call sends a spasm through Mickey: will this Jane Doe be Kacey? So far so compelling—but also so far so cliched. What’s really great here is how the shifty first-person narration (which is very subtly done, it takes a long time before we realize Mickey is, not exactly untrustworthy, but certainly prey to her own demons) forces us to consider what it means to value socially acceptable forms of addiction (to work, to control, to order). Long Bright River fillets the genre of the procedural, turning it inside out. I loved it—I stayed up until almost 4 to finish it and didn’t even regret it the next day—but I did wonder, Where can we go from here? Is the procedural simply impossible now? Smart book; looking forward to more from Moore.

Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar (1949)

Tey’s novel about a man who claims to be the long-lost scion of a pedigreed horse-owning English family, unseating his twin brother just days before the latter was to come into his inheritance, is plenty ingenious. We know from the beginning that Brat is an imposter, coached by a vindictive cousin who seizes upon the man’s uncanny likeness to the brother to split the inheritance two ways. (Shame Tey quickly gets bored of the cousin.) So the question isn’t “Is he for real?” but “Will he be uncovered?” Tey pulls a nice surprise at the end, and asks questions about identity and belonging. (There’s a lotta horse neepery, which I could takle or leave.) I liked it well enough—though less so, I think, than Rohan, whose take you should read—but not as much as her earlier novel of unsettlement, The Franchise Affair, and not as much as another novel from the period concerning an uncanny imposter, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, a more suspenseful book which has, it seems to me, wider ambitions.

Gerda Weissmann Klein, All But My Life (1957, revised 1995)

Memoir recounting, first, Klein’s childhood in a prosperous Jewish merchant family in the Silesian town of Bielitz (today Bielsko-Biala), a textile center near the Czech border that until WWI had been part of Austro-Hungary; the destruction of that world with the German invasion of Poland; her family’s subsequent dispersal and persecution; and eventually the story of her wartime suffering, first as a weaver in a series of slave labour camps and finally, most harrowingly, as one of only a handful of survivors of one of the longest and deadliest of the so-called Death Marches. Four thousand young women left the Gross-Rosen camp system in January 1945; after a 350-mile trek through that terrible winter, only 120 were still alive when the war ended in May.

Particularly interesting is the story of Klein’s rescue, at the point of death (she weighed 68 pounds at liberation), by an American GI, whom she subsequently married. I was struck by the differences between Klein’s experience and Ruth Kluger, who similarly survived a Death March but who memorably describes her first encounter with a GI who put his fingers in his ears when Kluger’s mother started to tell him what they had gone through. Kluger would go on to marry a GI too, though that marriage did not last. That Klein’s husband was Jewish, had been born in Germany, and emigrated with his family in the 1930s must have contributed to that difference.

Klein’s happily-ever-after contrasts with the other striking strand of her wartime experiences: her relationship with Abek Feigenblatt, a young man she met in a camp in 1941, when she and her parents were some of the only Jews left in Bielitz, and when it was still possible for people to visit those incarcerated. This was a work camp, not an extermination camp, and Abek’s job was to restore paintings, most of which had been stolen from Jewish homes, so he came and went with a great deal of freedom. The Bielitz ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and everyone left was sent either west, like Klein, to work, or east, like her parents, to be murdered.

The twenty-two-year-old Abek immediately falls for the teenaged girl (Klein was 17 at the time) and presses his suit. She is flattered but also unhappy; she does not love him and is both put off and frightened by his persistence. For the next few years their lives are painfully intertwined: Klein is briefly sent to Sosnowitz, forty-five miles away, where Abek’s family lives, and he urges them to arrange an essential worker permit for her, which she rejects for fear of being bound to him; later they write each other regularly from their respective work camps; and he eventually arranges to be transferred to a camp near her own, even though it is notoriously dangerous, so that, with the connivance of a kindly German overseer, they can occasionally see each other. Abek’s eventual fate—but also his disagreeable love—haunt Klein.

Some might say Klein’s experiences were too unusual, indeed too privileged, to count as representative. But all stories are particular, and all survivor accounts contain remarkable elements. After all, all survivors are anomalies. I am pretty amazed that Klein first published this in 1957; that it was revised in the mid 90s, as a result of a successful documentary film, makes sense: it feels of that Holocaust museum opening in DC/Schindler’s List Oscar winning moment. But to my mind it seems unusual for the 50s. I’d like to find out about its reception. Was it a success? How did its first readers take it? What framework did they place it in? One story often told is that that the Holocaust doesn’t coalesce as a concept until the Eichmann trial in the 60s, or the famous miniseries in the 70s. Klein’s book might challenge that. I do note that the back of my edition categorizes it as “Memoir/Judaica,” the latter an old-fashioned, exoticizing term. (I’d expect something like “Holocaust Studies” instead.)

Klein is a good writer, but not an extraordinary one. I missed, for example, Kluger’s analytic reach and sharp tone. Klein’s story is more triumphant, though certainly not without its bitterness. In general, she seems a more establishment figure, if I could put it that way. Her humanitarian work cannot be denied: Clinton appointed her to the USHMM governing council; Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom; as recently as 2008, in her 80s, she started a 501C3 that educates students about citizenship. Anyway, All But My Life is maybe not the only Holocaust memoir I’d want people to read, but I can recommend it.

Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)

Dillon has chosen 27 favourite sentences—from prose works ranging from Donne and Browne to Mantel and Jaeggy—and written a short essay on each. I have only three objections to this exercise. One, I’m deeply envious that I am not smart enough to have thought of this or good enough & well connected enough to pull it off. Two, Dillon loves to qualify and hesitate—and not just because nuance requires it. He speaks of “a certain kind of exposure,” “a certain fragility,” “a kind of care, and a kind of fury.” What he says about Janet Malcolm—“Malcolm’s own resistance to the same qualities [of permanence, order, closure] involves her in an orgy of provisionality and tentativeness”—is too often true of him too. Three, he is irritatingly fond of rhetorical questions, which is a shame since his real questions are excellent.

But even my envy and grumpiness give way before Dillon’s accomplishment. He’s a great celebrator, a quality I admire in a critic. And he’s a terrific close reader. My copy is filled with appreciative check marks and exclamations—he notices so much about his material, and develops those observations into suggestive insights. He’s really good on verbless sentences and on commas, especially those that are expected but elided. His choices are pleasingly unexpected; even the usual suspects are represented by obscure material. Joan Didion, for example, honed her craft writing captions for Vogue, and Dillon convincingly argues that his example—a sentence accompanying a photo of Dennis Hopper’s home—lost its power when Didion later revised and repurposed it in a published essay. Most importantly, he has good taste. He gets how amazing Elizabeth Bowen is, which is always going to win someone over in my books. He makes me want to read Maeve Brennan and Anne Boyer. And above all, he has sent me in search of Claire Bennett, about whom he writes brilliantly.

There you have it. Not quite the riches of September, but a better than average reading month. Mark Roseman’s book stood out above the rest, but Lore Segal, Hilary Leichter, Liz Moore, and Marga Minco impressed too. Not sure November will match up—I’ve spent most of it so far in a fog of election paralysis—but check back in a month to see.

6 thoughts on “What I Read, October 2020

  1. The Klein has been on my shelf for a while now- I should get to it soon. And you make the Minco and Segal books sound very interesting too- I’ll have to look for them as well.

  2. I’m very keen to read Suppose a Sentence. And I did add the Roseman to my TBR, based on your earlier post, but I neglected to mention that at the time. You’ve had a great reading month, with such a variety of styles and content. But, never mind all that, because now I must scan every bookshelf in the house and imagine each occupant as eyebrows of one sort or another…thank you very much for that. Without having read the Nunez, I would have thought Garner’s prose accurately described as a perfectly plucked brow…in the sense of a sense of being exacting and polished, the way she hones every element of her construction. So, now, you also have me wondering how the brows of your October works would compare (setting aside my own shelves temporarily).

    • Garner feels a little wilder to me than Nunez. Not like D. H. Lawrence wild, but more emotional, less guarded. Definitely forbidding, though. Also good brows, I’m sure. Maybe she wouldn’t care about them as much as Nunez?

      I confess I don’t know enough about eyebrow types to answer your question! Segal’s are plucked; Minco’s drawn on thickly.
      But I also run up against the gendered aspects of my thinking here. I simply don’t know how to talk about male eyebrows!

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